Shortly after its 1970 release and prompt disappearance in the U.S., the album Cold Fact made cult Detroit singersongwriter Rodriguez a superstar in Apartheid-era South Africa. Decades later, ardent fans took the lack of information on their hero as proof of death, launching the investigation that drives Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s debut feature.
It opens with a breathtaking cruise down South Africa’s coastal highway piloted by career fan Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, who begins the tale in voiceover: “All our rock stars had all the information we needed, but with this guy, there was nothing,” he says, as Rodriguez’s strummed junkie lament “Sugar Man” plays on the soundtrack. “Then we found out he committed suicide. He set himself alight on stage and burned to death.” A dazzling CGI title sequence shifts the scene to a 1968 graphic-novel-style Detroit, down whose streets we see a fedora-topped figure stride like the missing mariachi from The Watchmen, framing a noirish tale of music’s own Harry Lime.
If the 40 years since the fall of Ziggy Stardust have taught us anything, it’s to distrust rock bios that end with onstage self-immolation. While the mythic landscape rendered by Bendjelloul’s lavish photography and ace animation help suspend our disbelief, its storyforces impossible burdens on the sharp, insightful songwriting of its putative subject. As “Crucify Your Mind” plays over South African Seventies beach scenes, the Blonde-on-Blonde-by-Bacharach sound hardly benefits from the Dylan comparisons the interviews prompt. And as a score to riot footage with black bodies lying on the streets, the folksy “The Establishment Blues” (think “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” by Jose Feliciano) may spark something stronger than cognitive dissonance.
“In South Africa, Cold Fact was the anthem that gave people permission to free their minds and to start thinking differently,” says music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, presumably referencing people not yet convinced by tear gas, attack dogs, and bullets.
Life in a police state’s cultural vacuum, plus seismic changes in media technology, inevitably makes investigators like Bartholomew-Strydom seem slightly childlike in worldview and research skills. A visit to the government’s Archive of Censored Material gives a powerful example of what they’re up against, showing an LP of Cold Fact stamped “AVOID” with its gently salacious track, “I Wonder,” scratched out by a sharp object. But vets of music’s stateside culture wars meet the Afrikaner’s incredulous wonder with wan smiles or exasperation.
Producer Mike Theodore is amazed only by the assumption that Rodriguez is dead. The soft-spoken construction worker-slash-songwriter himself is puzzled by the idea that there is a puzzle. “It’s the music business, so there are no guarantees,” the 60-year-old says,when first interviewed in his dark crumbling house of 40 years. When Bartholomew-Strydom asks how he feels knowing he’s a superstar, Rodriguez smiles and looks away. “I . . . don’t know how to respond to that.”
News of his South African stardom brings Rodriguez and his adult daughters on a triumphant 1998 concert run in Cape Town, which we see either in shaky home-video coverage of the larger Bellville Velodrome, or gorgeously shot close-ups of ecstatic fans at the edge of the stage— obfuscating the event’s significance nearly as much as the ’79 and ’81 Australian concerts omitted from the storyline.
These are the days of miracles and wonders, of creative nonfiction and documentary magical realism. Perhaps Sixto Rodriguez really is the anchorite that Sugar Man portrays in, say, shots of him stoking a wood stove in his decrepit home, or trudging Detroit’s snowy streets dressed head to toe in black—walking the Earth like Caine. But a good songwriter’s failure to find fame in the U.S. hardly qualifies as a mystery. “Nobody was even interested in listening to him?” emotes Steve Rowland, the Hollywood actor who produced Rodriguez’s second album, Coming in from Reality. “How can that be?”Easy. It happens to scores of other artists every day. In a big country, dreams stay with you. Everyone else moves on.